Hearing a lot recently about the opioid epidemic? Read on to learn more
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When someone talks about addiction, it usually brings to mind illegal drugs or, indeed, alcohol. However, in recent years, one of the biggest public health crises associated with addiction has been opioid addiction. Opioid addiction has become one of the biggest addiction-related issues in the history of the U.S, and their impact has been tremendous. Let’s examine the opioid epidemic and what it teaches us concerning addiction.
What are opioids? Opioids are a type of drugs that are usually used to manage pain. There are licit and illicit opioids. The legal versions might be used to manage pain in chronic pain patients or people with other health conditions that need pain relief. The illicit drugs tend to be more powerful than the legal drugs and, while they also might have pain relieving effects, their primary benefit is the feeling of pleasure, euphoria, and relaxation that they induce. Opioids are a highly addictive drug that also are associated with a high risk of overdose. Every day, over a 100 people just in the U.S. die of an opioid overdose, and even within a medical context, this drug can frequently be misused. Opioid addiction represents a public health crisis because it contributes to a high number of deaths by overdose, healthcare costs, the need to provide addiction treatment, and is also associated with productivity losses and criminal justice system costs. It represents a big problem for people with chronic pain issues who find their painkiller use restricted. It is a problem for families, for organizations, and for people with addiction as well.
The opioid epidemic became a hot button issue in the past few years. So, what happened? There have been several factors contributing to this development. Firstly, since the 90s, there was a tendency among the medical community to prescribe opioids at a high rate because these medications were not considered to be as addictive as they turned out to be. This led to a significant growth in addiction rates and also to the sales and manufacturing of opioids. But this was not the only reason. At this time, there also was a significant growth among synthetic and illegal opioids. Opioids were easier to get on the street than other types of drugs, and they were also more affordable that many of the alternatives, so this also led to an increase in the amount of people who used them. To a point, it has been argued that there is still the issue of over prescription of opioids and the availability of illicit drugs or legal drug sold illegally continues to be high.
What has been done to address the epidemic? The main measures have been associated with attempting to monitor the prescriptions for opioids, which has provided mixed results. On one hand, the current strict guidelines for physicians and patients concerning opioids might help prevent misuse but it has also been argued that it might impose an unfair burden on the lives of people who need these drugs for a good quality of life. It has also been argued that many of the people with addiction are not only people who get it because they need it but, primarily, people who abuse other drugs and buy them off the street. The success of the measures taken against the opioid epidemic has been mixed, and there have been other proposed measures to help alleviate the problem. One proposed solution for the frequent overdoses, recently suggested, has been that people should have a higher access to the drug naltrexone, which can prevent death from overdose. Making this drug accessible and common enough for people to have on them is expected to reduce the number of opioid-related deaths. Still, the issue remains.
What does the opioid epidemic show us about addiction? It shows that it can be a complex issue. NIH outlined plans for $500M to combat the opioid epedemic. Opioids may be addictive but they are also very necessary for many people. People with chronic pain may not always be able to go without opioids even if they have an addiction, for instance, so is it fair to restrict their access to these drugs? The second issue associated with this epidemic is that it shows that restrictive measures to deal with addiction might not be enough by themselves to reduce addiction rates. It also shows that there is still a lot that we do not know about drugs and that the use of specific medication and substances can have unexpected consequences in terms of addiction.
Overall, the opioid epidemic is a serious issue that represents a public health crisis in the U.S. It might be important to see how it develops and what can be learned from it.